The publishing world is built on quicksand.
Physical books are being superseded by e-Books, more books are being pirated and uploaded onto the internet and able to be downloaded for free than ever, and most writers, unless they are very, very famous, are lucky enough to earn enough to live – not to mention the fact that the Internet is now chock-full of exciting “bits” of entertainment, like Youtube videos, sites like Tumblr and Facebook, Memes, which siphon people’s already limited attention away from novels requiring time and patience to extract the value from them.
In other words, being a writer, in the modern age of digital blips and bops, is like training to be a teacher in world where the children are rapidly vanishing.
So what should we do?
If you are a reader (and you’d be surprised how very little readers there are in the world; a great deal of people never pick up a novel after the graduate from school) then I would advise you to generally not download or pirate books for free from the internet (unless you cannot afford to purchase them, in which case you should – just speaking for myself as a writer, I would rather people not pay and enjoy my books rather than have my books only reaching a limited socioeconomic group) and to try and get your literary fix either through purchasing the book on sites like Amazon or visiting your library and reading the books there. Libraries, the hundreds and thousands of them dotting the world, I am convinced, are one of the reasons writers are still able to stay alive and therefore write; they also happen to be the most beautiful places on earth: free knowledge galore, stretching out away from you along the myriad shelves.
But if you are a writer, whether you have published one book already or published none at all or have yet to succeed at finishing writing a book (it’s not easy, the business of finishing what you start – I speak from experience), things are altogether another kettle of fish. First off, if you are an inexperienced writer like I am, there is, I think, very little use in obsessing over whether your book will sell or receive good reviews in the future when you haven’t actually even written a book of publishable quality yet.
There is no point in having lofty ideals of being able to buy a little cottage beside a stream and donating royalties to children hospitals and starving people when you haven’t even established yourself as author yet. Instead – and this, is in a way, advice for myself also – you should focus your efforts entirely on improving your craft, and writing words and books that are true expressions of your creative being, surging from your heart onto the page.
Nevertheless, even if you are an amateur, it is also good to know what will truly help you succeed as a writer in the uncertain times ahead, and perhaps establish some good habits early. As I said earlier, I am only a writer just starting out myself, yet some ideas in regards to succeeding on the publishing scene have been brewing in my head for a while, and I just wanted to share them.
There an awful lot of books out there – and lot of them, though written by awfully nice people, with awfully complex writing skills where the words weave and spin and twist across the page, are, well, a little boring. I suppose it’s what someone fancier than I, with a Marketing degree tucked under their belt, might refer to as “market saturation” – and with the advent of self-publishing venues like Amazon, and around 5,000 new titles being published every day, it’s only going to get harder for your book to be noticed.
In a sea of mediocre books, many spouting regurgitated story lines and ideas – fairytales reworkings, vampires, zombies, fairies, people getting lost and other people trying to find them, people discovering they have strange powers – to actually rise up from the surrounding waters in the form of, say, a little atoll, means the concept of your book has to different.
These days the publishing industry is almost as bad as the movie industry, in that there is very little new and wildly original material being produced that keeps raising the bar higher and higher. Instead, things have stagnated, either because the writers of today need to wake up their imaginations a little, or because the industry doesn’t want to take any risks and knows that a book with, say, lots of action and a fantasy world and a female protagonist will sell well. Creativity and integrity sacrificed for commercial interests.
And yet, throughout history, it has been the truly original authors and their books who have succeeded phenomenonally: Enid Blyton, Suzanne Collins, Roald Dahl, etc. So stretch your imagination to the utmost limit when writing your book – if you don’t love what’s going on the page, no-one else will – and even if you don’t become a bestseller, at least you will have had fun and left the world a little more interesting for you having been in it.
- Unique Book Covers.
Once again, not applicable to inexperienced writers who are still struggling with trying to string together words in a coherent form to place between the covers – but the power of a beautiful book cover cannot be underestimated. Firstly, there is the fact that, as humans, we like looking at beautiful things, whether that is a beautiful face or beautiful cover art. Secondly, it’s much easier to treasure a book with a beautiful, unique cover rather than a bland or generic image, which increases the likelihood readers will want to purchase your book and keep it on their own personal bookshelf.
A good cover, well-designed, well-made, with nice, thick pages inside, especially if it’s hardcover, also conveys a tangible sense of value – you can hold it, touch it, smell it – that digital book formats lack. It’s sort of the packaging on a gift: in the end, the gift inside matters a lot more than the wrapping, but pretty packaging certainly doesn’t hurt. Of course, often the cover art is beyond a writer’s control, but it’s always good to keep these things in mind. A unique cover not only means readers will remember your books, it also lets your book stand out, and if you write many other books and incorporate the same theme concept for the cover art of all of them (all Roald Dahl books have a trademark look, for example), then you will have created a unique, recognisable brand for yourself.
For some strange reason most publishers and writers believe illustrations should be reserved only for picture books when nothing could be more further from the truth. If done correctly, and for the right books, illustrations can bring an extra dimension of life to novels, allowing the world to seep more clearly into the reader’s imagination. It’s best not to use illustrations for books set in the real world – we know what the real world looks like, we encounter it everyday, on the internet, on the News, outside our doorstep. But for, say, particular YA fantasy novels, particularly if the world-building is especially unique and strange, illustrations can really add a little extra oomph – and artistically, for novels, it is often best to have sketched illustrations, rather than full-color ones which can seem too sugary-sweet and childish.
Though once again, it all comes down to a matter of taste, and the particular story being told. The Hunger Games books, for instance, though a dystopian series and fantastical in many respects (genetically-engineered animals, for instance), is closely related enough to our own world to not require illustrations. But a book set in an alternate universe for example, with strange characters, inventions, almost too complex and intricate to be contained by mere words, can often benefit from an illustration or two. Characters are also one of the best things to illustrate, as their facial features are often the hardest to imagine, even with reams and reams of description. By scrawling in a tastefully done picture of a character here, a landscape there, you can often make the reader feel closer to the characters in the book, and make the world just that little bit more real.
I am sure there is some fancy-shmancy marketing term for this a woman with a clipboard under her arm in some boardroom can enunciate from between immaculately lipsticked lips, but I just like to call them “trinkets”. What are trinkets? Trinkets are little objects you include with the purchase of the book, like a little badge, say, worn by one of the characters in the story, or a map – and they are very, very easy to get wrong. There is a very fine line between tasteful and tawdry when it comes to trinkets. Generic, cheap looking trinkets that looked as if they’re made of plastic melted and then re-shaped and then painted gold aren’t going to do your book any favors. You have to be creative when it comes to your choice of trinkets. Far better it is to have no trinket at all than a cheap-looking one, but the right trinket, slipped into a plastic pocket at the back of the book, can delight the reader and enhance their reading experience. I smile just thinking of finding one in a book myself.
There are many ways you could go about this – the more creative, the better. One caveat, though: it is very easy to get carried away with all this extraneous detail, like trinkets and covers and illustrations, and forget the most important thing, which are the words and the stories they are telling. However, in saying that, music, once again, if done correctly, can enhance the reading experience (which is probably why audiobooks are so popular). You could perhaps slip in an internet link for the theme song of the book, or little clips of the characters, using voice actors, speaking to one another. Again, like always, your imagination is the limit. At the end of the day, you just want readers to enjoy themselves, and give them the most delightful experience imaginable so that your story almost seems to leap off the page.
- Extra Material.
I have noticed a lot of middle-grade books doing this – they contain, along with the story itself, scribbled little diary entries written by the characters, illustrations or diagrams describing the various inventions, maps. I think they’re important. They add an extra layer of realism to the story – maps in particular as they help centre the story almost in a real place, no matter how fantastical the world is. For instance, with the Harry Potter series, it would have been nice to have a labeled diagram of Hogwarts (apparently it was impossible because stairways and rooms kept magically shifting) or a Marauder’s Map included in the book it featured in. It’s all about making the imaginary and fantastical real as the blood sluicing in our own veins. When we read, we want to be transported from our hum-drum lives, into a stranger and more marvelous existence – and the more vivid and true, the better.
Of course, there is the usual litany of self-promotion techniques for the published writer, like social media sites, blogs and visiting libraries and conventions to speak, but what I included in this list were simply whimsical ways to make the reading experience all the more richer. and make my heart spark with delight to muse over. Practicing some of these, with discretion, just might encourage people to own or seek out physical copies of books more often, and bring greater joy to the lives of both writers and readers (as a writer myself, I can imagine myself having a lot of fun finding the right trinket or song).
What did you think of them? If you were to pick up a book incorporating any of these ideas, do you think it would detract or enhance your reading experience?